Dave Housley’s Commercial Fiction is exactly what the title suggests, in two senses of the term. First, it’s literally short fiction that curls itself around standard network TV commercials, with anything from Taco Bell to Cialis given the brief 3D space of psychologically complex characters, many of whom, beneath the plywood façade of the commercial, are deeply unhappy or otherwise ill-at-ease. Second, it’s also a book about the idea of “commercial fiction” and more to the point about how the worlds of a 30-second primetime slot for something like DirecTV and the worlds of well-groomed, mainly good, upper-middle class straight white people significantly overlap. It’s not my agenda here to claim that commercial fiction as we know it is as “worthless” as a television commercial, because I’m not making the claim that commercials are worthless, and neither is Housley in his stories. Instead, as a whole, Housley’s stories are inhabited by empathetic characters trapped in glum lives only glimpsed in brief snatches, brought to us by actors trained to do this: to provide us with a facade so convincing that it appears to have depth.
First, though, the commercials themselves. If Housley pokes holes into the endless sunshine of TV commercial lives, he’s not setting out simply to mock how shallow most TV commercials are, but rather to enrich and invest them with an actual humanity that we, as viewers, are supposed to assume is there. Take for example the first story, “Cialis,” narrated not from the point of view of a man happy to herald a soon-to-arrive erection but from his frustrated and disappointed wife sitting in a hot tub adjoining his and waiting for an erection she may or may not even be happy to behold. She’s hopeful, and can still see “the confidence that made [her] wait for him in the hallway after Freshman Comp some forty years ago.” But now, though, sitting and waiting in rapidly-cooling hot tubs at a commercially generic resort, there’s more:
Now I know, of course, that confidence can be a tricky thing. Confidence can mean time-shares and junk bonds, tech start-ups and sub-prime mortgages. Confidence can get you sitting out on the lawn of a five-star resort in a lukewarm tub waiting for an erection that may or may not arrive.
Part of the greatness of Housley’s collection is that the archetypes we spot in ads aren’t merely deflated, or mocked for being as thin as they are, and neither does Cialis itself take much of a hit. What’s going on instead is that within these brief flickering televised slices of life there’s history, there’s failure, there’s doubt. Housley does the most terrifying than that can be done to a TV commercial: he makes its sunny stereotypes into real people, and follows them, rather than the trajectory of the ad or (mostly) what it’s advertising. We might watch our favorite shows once, twice, maybe a half-dozen times, but we’re bombarded with commercials, with serene shallowness that suggests Everything is Going to Be Okay when, in the stories here, when the ads are pulled into narrative that extends them what’s going on is more complicated, more “tricky,” more human. That Housley can thoroughly territorialize TV commercials and make them into compelling fiction is great enough, but that he can flip things, and remind us that the bought spots we see on TV are only one brief instant of an implied life that we’ll never know, but what we can know is that the implied lives of the perfect, clean joy of a Lexus or Subway commercial are, if we had more time to examine more of the story, lives that are just as messy and complex as the ones we live and the ones we can also find in fiction we read, fiction that gives us long takes instead of glimpses.
And that’s where the turn in the book’s title comes in. What Housley has done, essentially, is turn commercials into commercial fiction, meaning that now we know we’re reading about authentically complex human beings and their authentically complex lives, and if anything, Commercial Fiction is more of a condemnation of commercial fiction than of the commercials Housley’s characters uneasily inhabit. Maybe the best example of this is the drift from traditionally “commercial fiction” into the surreality of a TV commercial in Housley’s take on a McDonald’s ad. Not much takes place in the brief story but we’re given all the goods of what would make for a juicy mainstream narrative. In the story, narrated by a peripheral character, the younger of two sisters in a car along with the older sister’s male friends make their way up through the canyons north of Los Angeles to a destination unknown to the narrator. So then Younger Sister harbors all the nervousness that might be implied in her recounting of not really knowing her sister that well, of seeing her sister behave differently toward these male companions than she’s previously acted, and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen upon arrival other than it’s a “party.” So, very economically, Housley lets us in on family dynamics, on a potential coming-of-age story, of unexplored sexuality, and of the possibility that the events at the party might be less than G-rated.
The punchline, though, is that it’s a McDonald’s commercial so the events are entirely G-rated. After arriving and being greeted, the younger sister and the others join a generically happy party soon interrupted by the party’s whole crux: the arrival of bags upon bags of food from McDonald’s. Housley expertly sets up many tropes of mainstream family-drama fiction only in order to deliver us what most commercial fiction offers us: an incongruously light and happy ending, all doubts and shadows cast away. That the younger sister is perplexed in her state between two different kinds of plasticity only serves to show how easily the two dovetail, and in that, Housley brings us a tremendous book that deftly weds psychological complexity behind a TV spot to the artificially sweet narrative of commercial fiction and, just as most TV ads and most commercial fiction would have you believe, in Housley’s book, to his enormous credit, we really can have it both ways.
Commercial Fiction, by Dave Housley. Outpost19. 108 pages. $12.00, paper.
Nicholas Grider is the author of the story collection Misadventure (A Strange Object, 2014) and the conceptual book Thirty Pie Charts (Gauss PDF, 2014). His work has appeared in Caketrain, the Collagist, Conjunctions, DIAGRAM and elsewhere.